Charlton and Saints climb up to the twin peaks

Steve Tongue
Sunday 07 December 2003 01:00

However heated this afternoon's Premiership game between Southampton and Charlton Athletic may become, the genuine warmth generated by the mutual respect in the directors' box and the managers' dug-outs will remain unsurpassed. The clubs have so much regard for each other that it would be no great surprise to see Gordon Strachan and Alan Curbishley exchange tracksuit tops at the final whistle while their chairmen are swapping overcoats.

There is justifiable pride in making such significant pro-gress on and off the field that many supposedly bigger clubs are becoming envious of the unlikely couple's achievements with both ball and balance sheet. "I've got a lot of time for Southampton," Curbishley said in beginning the weekend love-in. "They seem to have been in the top flight forever, they've moved to a fantastic stadium. If we can do anything like they did last season in making the top 10 and a cup final, we'll be delighted. It's a great little set-up."

Barely five seasons ago, in Charlton's first Premiership campaign, the clubs were locked together in less comfortable circumstances: sharing two of the three lowest average attendances in the League (split only by Wimbledon) and fighting each other to avoid the final relegation place. The Saints survived and have never been as low again, finishing 10th, 11th and eighth; last season's position being their best for 18 years, and a run to the FA Cup final bringing a place in the Uefa Cup.

Charlton, by making one lucrative sale after relegation (Danny Mills to Leeds for £4.37m), regrouped and immediately won the First Division championship, spent shrewdly on their return and finished in ninth place, their highest since 1954. But for falling away once the hard work was done in the past two seasons, they would have added more impressive finishes than 14th and 12th.

The pages of the latest Deloitte and Touche Annual Review of Football Finance regularly bracket the clubs together in a whole variety of tables, confirming repeatedly that the improvement in playing standards has not been achieved in tandem with financial risk-taking. In the wages league covering all divisions, Southampton are only 17th and Charlton 18th; yet the graph charting salaries against sporting performance lists them with Bolton as the only Premiership clubs in the quadrant marked "low wages and high sporting performance".

Although both rank highly for outgoings on stadiums, it is easy to see the benefit: Southampton spent £9.8m towards the cost of their new ground, but have now more than doubled capacity - and attendances - from the 15,000 of five years ago; Charlton's £8.8m investment has brought an increase of 6,832, with 98 per cent of capacity being utilised. Hence the decision to push on with plans for a Valley holding 40,000, making it the largest club ground south of the Thames.

Their chief executive, Peter Varney, says of today's opponents: "I'm always saying that Southampton are as much of a model as we are. It's as if twin brothers were running the two clubs. Outside the top three clubs, I think there's been a levelling-up overall, because of the way clubs have murdered themselves with debt and depressed the transfer market. That's good for the likes of us."

The view from the south coast is similar. "The whole of football has run itself in a financially indisciplined way," Southampton's chairman, Rupert Lowe said in these pages just before his club's appearance in the FA Cup final. "Some clubs have weakened themselves by overspending."

In response to calls to splash the cash and find a sharper-shooting partner for James Beattie, he added last week: "The media seem to think chucking money at things is a sign of ambition." He might have included a percentage of supporters in that generalisation, occasional stirrings of unrest among the paying public recently reflecting the one downside of success: increased expectations.

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